A view from Iceland: the fight to defend and preserve freedom

Lithuanian flags. @ A. Pliadys MoD

“Lithuania celebrates independence and freedom on 11 March – State Restoration Day. As Ukraine now fights for the values of democracy and freedom, it is a fitting date to publish this article about my experience in Lithuania in English,” says Sveinn Helgason Policy Analyst from Iceland. He wrote an article “Occupation for a half a century and the road to freedom” about his time as a member of the enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup in Rukla in 2020, as a contribution of the Icelandic government. 

“Lithuania has been at the forefront of NATO Allies in supporting Ukraine to fight Russian forces following their full-scale invasion almost a year ago. Lithuania is simply close to my heart after my 2020 deployment there as a civilian communications expert and since I have visited the country on a regular basis,” says Sveinn.  “The article is in fact my tribute to Lithuania, the country and the people – a nation with a complex history but resilient and courageous. The bond between Iceland and Lithuania is also special.”

The article was originally published in Icelandic in the magazine Skírnir, in spring 2021 but has now been translated to English. Sveinn has also added an epilogue on the war in Ukraine, the lead up to the full-scale invasion and the current geopolitical context.

“As it happened I was in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, on the fateful day of 24 February 2022,” adds Sveinn. “When reading the original article it should be kept in mind that I interviewed people and wrote it in late 2020 and early 2021. However it is almost chilling to read the quotes and the analysis now and realize how the escalation of Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine and the full-scale invasion was a long-time coming. Therefore, we need to learn our lessons and ensure that freedom and democracy prevails.”

It should be noted that the views of Sveinn in the article, both the original one and the epilogue, are his own and reflect his personal opinion and analysis. Read the article:

The story of an Icelandic civilian on a military base in Lithuania – a proud nation with a complex history and a violent neighbor, where trusted Allies are vital

First published in Skírnir magazine, in Icelandic, in Spring 2021

I was the only passenger on board the small Belgian Air Force jet when it took off from Brussels, heading east to Lithuania. Spring was in the air, 13 May 2020, in the middle of a COVID pandemic. Around two and a half hours after take-off, I landed at the airport in the city of Šiauliai in the north of the country. Fields and forests greeted me during the approach to the military airfield but on the ground I saw a hangar for fighter jets and the air traffic control tower on the horizon. My “private driver”, the German soldier Benny, had parked his car on the tarmac, a stone’s throw away from the plane. He greeted me warmly, though not with a handshake. The bags? “They’re in the car,” he said cheerfully. “Just hop in, then we are off”. I felt like a rock star except I’ve never been in a rock band and was not on a concert tour in Lithuania. I had come there to work for the Icelandic Crisis Response Unit, on a military base for a multinational force under the auspices of NATO, as an employee of the Icelandic Ministry of Foreign Affairs. . But first on the agenda was a COVID test and two weeks quarantine, to ensure that all health and safety requirements were fulfilled, before I was allowed into the main military base in the town of Rukla. Lithuania became my home for the next six months and this stay gave me a valuable insight into international politics and the complex history of this interesting country.

This article is divided into three main sections where I share my Lithuanian experience and try to answer some key questions: What is Lithuania’s identity, what shapes the nation’s worldview and why does Iceland have a special place in the hearts of Lithuanians? I will also shed light on the reasons why it was the clear public will after  the country restored its independence in 1991, that Lithuania should join the European Union and participate in defence and security cooperation between Western democracies.  The objective of the article is to demonstrate why Lithuanians view this international co-operation as one of the cornerstones for safeguarding the nation’s sovereignty and securing its future. I share my experience as a civilian expert on a multinational military base where soldiers from different nations come together to join Lithuanians in the country’s defence. I also visited places that are relevant to Lithuanian history to explain the interplay between past and present. They bear witness to a great deal of courage and a strong desire for freedom, but also to incredible cruelty and the darkest sides of human nature. To gain insight into the national psyche of Lithuania and identify key security and defence challenges of the nation, I conducted in-depth interviews with two Lithuanian experts who share their experience and knowledge – though of course, they do not speak for every Lithuanian. Finally, I relied on written sources and numerous anecdotal experiences and stories to gain a better understanding what it is like to live in a country where history is always alive and the external threat remains very real.

Self-image, history and freedom

  A nation’s identity is shaped by both victories and defeats, and Lithuanians have learned from  bitter experience that independence and sovereignty cannot be taken for granted. If we only look at the 20th century, the history of this Baltic country, like its neighbours Estonia and Latvia, has been a rocky one, to say the least. In World War II Lithuania was caught in a bloody power struggle between two superpowers and dictatorships, the Soviet Union and Germany, and the consequences for Lithuanians were enormous. Lithuania had been an independent republic since 1918, but its fate and that of several other nations was decided by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Moscow and Berlin, signed on August 23, 1939. A week later, on September 1, World War II began with the invasion of the German army into Poland.  According to a secret protocol to the Pact Hitler got the western part of Poland, while Stalin got the eastern part and the three Baltic states. In the summer of 1940, the Red Army occupied Lithuania and created a short-lived Soviet republic for a year. The German army invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The “friendship” between Stalin and Hitler was in tatters and the Germans soon occupied Lithuania during their offense to the east. The Red Army finally drove Hitler’s German army out of Lithuania three years later, near the end of the war. Lithuania then became a part of the Soviet Union for nearly half a century until that “empire” collapsed. The Lithuanian nation declared the restoration of an independent state on March 11, 1990, breaking free from the yoke of the Soviet occupation. About a year and half later, Lithuania received formal recognition from the international community.

” Lithuanians today in many ways identify with the independent republic of the years between the two world wars and believe  that the nation-state has now been reborn. However, they also look back to the Middle Ages, to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, “says Vaidas Saldžiūnas, an experienced journalist at Delfi.lt, Lithuania’s largest online media outlets. We sit at a table with two meters’ distance between us in the Sakwa restaurant in the capital city of Vilnius one evening in mid-October 2020. There is a lull in the COVID pandemic and restaurants are open, but there are rather few customers dining. The menu has a Polish flavour and that makes sense, because the history of Lithuania and Poland is intertwined. Vaidas is an ocean of knowledge and frankly expresses his views on domestic, as well as international politics. He is a fast talker and hardly stops while we eat. Vaidas had suggested that I choose an appetizer reminiscent of Icelandic blood sausage, called “slátur” and it tastes good. We hit it off from the start and time passes quickly as we are surrounded by Sakwa’s dark wooden furniture, in a small house at the bottom of a hill near a busy intersection.

We start by talking about the years of Soviet occupation and how the government in Moscow wanted to transform Lithuanian society in line with communist ideology. “Throughout the Soviet era, people were systematically exposed to lies and it was inevitable that the public would be affected,” says Vaidas. He also points out how Moscow’s propaganda deceived some in the West who believed in the “Soviet miracle” in industry, culture and other areas of society. Many of them have since been deeply disappointed when they headed east and visited the Soviet Union. The Lithuanians, on the other hand, got to experience the oppression of the Stalinist regime first hand.

            “The Soviet era was terrible, not only because of the repression and the pain but also how the nation’s mentality changed” says Vaidas. He also recalls when the Red Army regained control of Lithuania in 1944, the Soviet occupation from 1940 to 1941 was fresh in many people’s minds: “The Soviets returned in 1944 and the reason why so many joined the resistance movement is that people remembered what had happened four years before and did not want to go through that experience again. And after the Soviets reoccupied Lithuania, they used the same slogans, committed more murders and deported more people.”

Soviet star
Soviet star / Corbis

Exile in the Ural Mountains and the way back home

The story of Danutė Karankevičienė, born in 1930, illustrates what many of her generation experienced during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. Danutė and her family were forcibly deported from Lithuania to a faraway place inside Russia in 1945 when she was fifteen years old. “The most difficult thing about the exile in the Ural Mountains was that there was nothing to eat,” said Danutė when Brynja Dögg Friðriksdóttir, then the Icelandic civilian representative in the multinational force in Rukla, visited her in 2020. “We ate herbs and other things we picked in the woods. My mother made a thin soup from these ingredients and a pinch of salt. That was our meal,” says this ninety -year-old woman when she browses through photo albums from the past. Danutė has aged gracefully. She is delicate and warm in her approach, but her perseverance is obvious for all to see and her vivid story affects everyone who listens to it. The interview with Danutė was part of a series of videos that Brynja produced in the beginning of 2020 for the multinational NATO forces on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Lithuania’s declaration of the restoration of the country’s independence.

            Soviet authorities forcibly deported about 132,000 Lithuanians to remote areas of Russia, including Siberia, between 1941 and 1953. More than 70 percent of this large group were women and children, and about 50,000 were never able to return home. Danutė’s story describes vividly the oppression of the Lithuanian people by the Moscow regime which cracked down on any opposition with a heavy hard. Families were torn apart and forcibly removed from their homes. Danutė had a good childhood where she was the favorite of her three brothers but then fate intervened. i

            “We were forcibly deported because of my two older brothers, who were partisans. My family was torn apart after my father was ordered to join the Soviet Army (Red Army). He was arrested and told that if his sons surrendered, he would be released. Then my father said, let me go, and I will go and speak to my sons, and I will get them to enlist in the army. But when he was released, he went into hiding, so me, my mother and my younger brother, then 11 years old, were forcibly deported.”

Gulag in Siberia
Gulag. Vida Press

            On 17 July 1945, Danutė, her mother, and her brother were transported by train to the Perm region at the edge of the Ural Mountains, more than 2,400 km from Lithuania. There they were forced to log in the forest and carry out other hard work. Danutė was in exile for over 15 years and still has her “work diary”. “It was not until after Stalin’s death in 1953 that they allowed people to return home. My husband [whom she met in exile] was released in 1958 and me in December 1960, and we finally returned together to Lithuania in January 1961.”

After returning home, the young couple struggled to make ends meet. Danutė got a job at a post office where she worked for years. The couple moved to the town of Vievis and had two daughters. They are both now deceased as is Danutė’s husband. The memory of her brothers, the resistance fighters Antanas and Pranas Dzimidavičius, and others among them is celebrated in various ways in Lithuania. Among other things, they are commemorated on February 16 every year, because on that day in 1949, the freedom movement of the resistance declared itself to be the rightful political and military authority in the country. The date is no coincidence because on that same day in 1918 Lithuanians declared independence  – thus, February 16 is one of the country’s two national days. The armed resistance of Lithuanian partisans against Soviet rule lasted for nearly a decade, from 1944 to 1953. About 50,000 people fought the overwhelming force of the occupiers and at least 20,000 were killed. The resistance movement was organized like an army and its members regarded themselves as soldiers, bearing such insignia. The goal of the movement was clear and legitimate in the opinion of its members – to rebuild a democratic, independent and sovereign Lithuania. Among the main leaders of the Liberation Army was Juozas Lukša-Daumantas, who along with his comrades is a hero in the eyes of Lithuanians for showing courage and self-sacrifice for the benefit of the nation.

Danutė Karankevičienė always held on to the hope of freedom and she has no doubt about the importance of Lithuania now as a part of the western defence alliance. “NATO is protecting our country. Lithuania is safer now than when we regained our independence,” she says.

A bloody but victorious struggle for independence

A nation’s identity is also shaped by events that mark a historic turning point, and the memory of “bloody Sunday” in Vilnius on January 13, 1991, is still fresh in the minds of Lithuanians. Although Lithuania had declared the restoration of an independent state on March 11, 1990, Soviet troops were still in the country nearly a year later, and the Moscow government demanded that the constitution of the Soviet Union should re-enter into force. In fact, that would have meant that Lithuania’s declaration of restoration of independence would just be words on a piece of paper.

On January 11, 1991, Soviet special forces in armored vehicles and with the support of tanks moved in to seize key sites and buildings in Vilnius, including the Ministry of Defense. Crowds of people were on the streets of the capital, and shortly after midnight on the eve of Sunday, January 13, Soviet tanks fired their first shots in the vicinity of the city’s TV tower. The soldiers then attacked the crowd that had formed a defensive shield around the tower and also attacked the Radio and Television Committee building, the current headquarters of LRT – Lithuanian National Radio and Television. In the end, 14 civilians were killed and more than 700 injured, many of them seriously. The Soviet troops actually refrained from storming the parliament building, which was guarded by a large crowd behind concrete barricades in addition to armed defenders stationed inside the building.

January 1991
January 1991 AFP/Scanpix

13 January 2021 marked the 30th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Vilnius. On that occasion the President of Lithuania, Gitanas Nausėda, said that the people of Lithuania had emerged victorious and lived up to their responsibility as citizens of an independent democracy. “That is why 13 January will always remind us that the power of the people is not a fiction. It is real and can change the world, ” the President said. After bravely confronting the Soviet military forces, Lithuania reaffirmed its independence from the Soviet Union with over 90% of the vote in a referendum held on 9 February 1991.

Wherever I go in Lithuania, I realize how important it is for Lithuanians that Iceland was the first state to recognize the country’s restoration of independence. Icelanders are therefore very welcomed in Lithuania. Mr. Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, went to Lithuania as well as Estonia and Latvia immediately after Bloody Sunday and met, among others, the leaders of the independence struggle in Vilnius. On 11 February 1991, the Icelandic Parliament, the Althingi, passed a resolution to reaffirm Iceland’s 1922 recognition of Lithuanian independence. The government of Iceland then established a formal diplomatic relationship with Lithuania and the other Baltic states in August of the same year.

I am reminded of Lithuania’s gratitude to Iceland when I walk down Iceland Street or Íslandsstræti in the old town of Vilnius and see the placard with the inscription “Takk Ísland” or Thank you, Iceland.” I’m on my way to a meeting with another expert on politics and the history of Lithuania in a café on a nearby pedestrian street. “History creates the common memory of a nation, “says Dalia Bankauskaitė, an expert on international politics and security, as we sit at one of the tables outside, warmly dressed in the cold autumn air. Dalia has worked for the government of Lithuania, in academia, and the international community for more than a quarter of a century. Her analysis is based on deep knowledge of complex issues and conviction. She was one of the pioneers of Lithuania’s foreign service 30 years ago when she was posted to the Embassy of Lithuania in Moscow, representing a state that was taking its first steps in a changing world. Dalia says it had been a true “baptism by fire” but also exciting to begin her career in the whirlwind of international politics during the turbulent year 1991 and receive valuable support from a small state in the middle of the North-Atlantic ocean.

Lithuania thanks Iceland for being the firts to recognise our Independnce. TakkÍsland. Photo @ Sveinn Helgason

            “Iceland’s recognition was a game changer because at first we were met with silence in the international community. We were a small country gaining freedom from the Soviet Union, a nuclear superpower. “We faced great challenges after enduring occupation for 50 years and had no experience in securing international recognition,” says Dalia. “It is only a small token of gratitude to name a street in Vilnius after Iceland, but this is also about superpowers and small states, and I really believe that small states can make a difference. Why? – Of course because of what Iceland did. It took courage, regardless of how it exactly happened.” Vaidas Saldžiūnas agrees: “We Lithuanians will always be grateful to Iceland for taking the lead in recognizing our restoration of independence.”

            Scholars, including Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, a historian and the current President of Iceland, have also examined the international importance of Iceland’s recognition. In his research, Guðni concluded that the Icelandic government’s support for the independence of the Baltic states was important, but ultimately not the decisive factor when all is said and done. On the other hand, Iceland’s brave steps in this matter were an important contribution to research into the potential and capacity of small states to gain a foothold in the international arena. After Guðni Th. Jóhannesson was elected president, he also emphasized the good relations between Iceland and Lithuania.

And as I stand next to the outdoor art  work “The Road of Freedom” in Vilnius, I am reminded of the collective power of the people of the three Baltic states on August 23 1989, when they literally joined hands and formed a 670 km long chain from Tallinn in Estonia in the north through Riga in Latvia to Vilnius in the south, to demand restoration of independence exactly 50 years after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Vaidas Saldžiūnas acknowledges the fact that about two million people formed this chain, but also believes that there is a certain myth that there was perfect unity among the people of all the Baltic states in the independence struggle. Vaidas says many in Lithuania were on the sidelines waiting to see which side would turn out to be victorious. “Maybe only 10 to 15% of the population actually did something to show their support for independence in action, but it was also important for the goal to be achieved,” he says.

            Lithuania was the first Baltic nation to declare the restoration of independence. Lithuanians freed themselves from the Soviet web of lies, gained the courage and belief that they would succeed in their mission, and only grew stronger in the face of adversity when a final attempt was made to coerce them into obedience. At the same time, it became clear to Lithuanians that they had to have allies ready to defend them if the country’s restored sovereignty was threatened.

Living next to a violent neighbor

My two-week quarantine ends on May 27 and I say goodbye to my place of residence in the Adrian Rohn camp, near the town of Pabradė. My German driver, Benny, picks me up and about two hours later we are at the gate of the headquarters of the multinational NATO force in Lithuania. The military base is located in a wooded area on the banks of the river Neris, on the edge of the small town of Rukla in the southwestern part of the country, near Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city. The first indication of the base is a fence with barbed wire at the top, right by the main road. Behind the tall trees, one can catch a glimpse of the buildings around the parade square in the middle where the troops line up for formal events and inspections. The guard at the gate checks our ID documents and waves us on.

I have formally started my work for the Icelandic Crisis Response Unit and instinctively I look for the Icelandic flag near the gate. I notice the flag, surrounded by the flags of the other contributing nations. The Lithuanian flag also flutters in the afternoon breeze in the center of the military base. But what do all these flags have in common and how does a newly independent small nation gain its footing in the tough world of international politics? It soon becomes clear to me how important it is for the Lithuanians that the world knows where Lithuania belongs on the international political map, even though some of its neighbours don’t share that view.

National security and international co-operation

“We have always been part of the West, also when Lithuania was in the Soviet Union. And when Lithuania gained independence, it was a logical and obvious step for us to apply for membership in NATO (The North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the European Union. It was a step towards sovereignty, historical justice and in accordance with the common historical memory that goes back many centuries, all the way back to the time when Lithuania was originally created,” says Dalia Bankauskaitė when I ask about Lithuania’s worldview.

Lithuania joined NATO in 2004 along with neighboring Estonia and Latvia and four other countries. “Early on NATO membership was a part of the agenda of those governing Lithuania, and in fact all political parties agreed on this goal towards the end of the last century,” says Vaidas Saldžiūnas. “Just as NATO membership is fundamental to Lithuania’s national security, the importance of the multinational force here is paramount and encouraging for us,” says Dalia Bankauskaitė. She also adds that Lithuanians are fully aware of their own responsibility for the country’s security. “First we need to be able to defend ourselves, but this will ensure that NATO Allies will come to our aid in the event of war.”

Iceland was one of the founding members of NATO  in Washington, DC, on 4 April 1949. Article 5 of the Alliance’s founding treaty, the so-called “Washington Treaty” stipulates that an armed attack against one or more member state is an attack on all of them. Therefore, other Allies will come to the aid of and help to defend those who have been attacked. The use of armed force may be part of the assistance “to restore and maintain the security of the North- Atlantic area.”

This collective defence of NATO members is the cornerstone of the Alliance, and Vaidas Saldžiūnas says that Article 5 was generally considered sufficient to ensure Lithuania’s defense. That assessment changed when the Russian government violated the recognized borders and sovereignty of neighboring Ukraine in 2014 with the illegal annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in the eastern Donbas region. NATO leaders therefore considered it necessary to strengthen the Alliance’s deterrence and member states’ defenses on the eastern flank.  At the Warsaw-summit in 2016, the leaders decided to send multinational forces to all the Baltic states and Poland, coordinating with the respective countries. The forces have been in these countries since 2017 under the banner of “enhanced Forward Presence” or eFP – vanguard forces that are a sign of Allied solidarity. NATO warplanes also take turns conducting so-called air-policing over the Baltic States, including from the Šiauliai air base, where I landed.

“We have never really had any allies over the years, except the Poles. We now have 29 allies, including the United States, which also have troops here, “says Vaidas Saldžiūnas. “And the NATO flag is a symbol of this guarantee that the public trusts and believes in. Therefore, I think Lithuania’s support for NATO has never fallen below 60% and protests against membership have been rare, ” he adds. In a late 2018 poll, Lithuania’s support for NATO membership was 86%. In Iceland, on the other hand, NATO membership has been considerably more controversial, and  a violent clash between opposing forces, some say riots, broke out in Austurvöllur on 30 March, 1949, when the majority of the Althingi, the Icelandic parliament, approved the accession. In 2019, about half of Icelanders were rather or very positive about Iceland’s membership (49%), about a third (32.3%) answered “moderately”, but almost a fifth (18.8%) were rather or very negative towards NATO membership.

Alert exercise and the Kaliningrad militarized enclave

“Alert! Alert! ” The shouting in the corridor of the dormitory where I live on the base wakes me up and I run out into the dark early in the morning to take part in an exercise that tests how quickly and professionally the forces can respond to threats. Germany, the leading nation of the eFP force in Lithuania, provides about half of the more than 1,200 troops, and the commander of the force is German. Other contributing nations in Rukla at this time are Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Croatia, Luxembourg, Norway and the Czech Republic. The multinational forces are integrated into the Lithuanian Armed Forces Infantry Brigade, Iron Wolf, which has its own base in Rukla. In fact, Lithuanian troops also live in the NATO military base, which is a world in itself –  like an island in a civil society with its own culture, based on routine and organization. However, all the soldiers have the common task of defending the values on which NATO is based – democracy and freedom.

I am a “Public Affairs Officer” and the tasks are different every working day. I have the camera in my hands on the roof of a bunker with a Norwegian tank at full speed just below me or I meet a Dutch artillery officer in the main training area shortly before he gives his crew of a Howitzer the order to fire. Then I enjoy a delicious mushroom soup made from freshly picked mushrooms in the woods, at the invitation of Lithuanian soldiers who have built a difficult obstacle course in an international military competition and are awaiting the arrival of Norwegian “Vikings”. The Prime Minister of Norway, Erna Solberg, also visits the troops in the Pabrade training area during my stay, and Emmanuel Macron, President of France, visits the base in Rukla to inspect his French soldiers.

Lithuania and its allies flags in Rukla Military Base. Photo @ Sveinn Helgason

I manage the multinational force’s Facebook page, but I also write articles for magazines and share information with other NATO members in Lithuania and the NATO headquarters in Brussels. As a member of the Icelandic Crisis Response Unit, I also have the mandate to promote gender equality and draw attention to the role of women in the mostly male-dominated military world. The aim of all these communication efforts is to ensure the greatest possible transparency – so that the public gains insight into the training and military exercises – but also to send a clear message that Allied NATO forces always remain vigilant in Lithuania’s defense.

The role of the eFP forces is to deter any enemy from an attack and the greatest threat is considered to be posed by Russia, although this is not always said outright. The threat comes from the east , but in fact also from the west in the case of Lithuania. The reason is that the Kaliningrad region on the Baltic Sea coast, a stone’s throw west of Rukla, is also part of Russia under the Allied Potsdam Treaty of 1945. The region is named after a city of the same name but is formerly known as Königsberg, a German name. Kaliningrad can be described as a Russian wedge driven between Poland and Lithuania. The border between Lithuania and Poland – or the so-called Suwalki Gap – is the only land connection between the Baltic states and other NATO allies and fellow European Union member states. This stretch of land is about 100 kilometers wide and militarily very important. It is vital for Lithuania and its allies to keep it open in the event of a conflict I am aware of this proximity to the Russian bear when I enjoy my lunch on a peaceful late summer day in the “poetry park” in the town of Marijampolė, only about 40 minutes’ drive from the border with Kaliningrad, close to the Polish- Lithuanian border. The Iron Curtain no longer divides Europe in two, but we still need to stay vigilant.

“The military threat is there, and Kaliningrad is like an island on dry land. It can actually be compared to a warship that cannot be sunk,” says Dalia Bankauskaitė. “In Kaliningrad there are a lot of weapons that serve the purpose of sending a clear message to the West about Russia’s presence. There are constant military exercises taking place and we also need to police our airspace really well.”

The Zapad 2017 exercise to take place in Russia and Belarus later this year will be the biggest-ever military war games next to Lithuanian borders, says Vytautas Bakas, chairman of the Lithuanian parliamentary National Security and Defense Committee.
Zapad 1017, in Kalinigrad region RIA / Scanpix

Governments in the Baltics and security experts there and elsewhere point to Russia’s history and conduct in the region in recent years as proof of the threat at the doorstep. “Russian aggression in Ukraine, military exercises along the borders of the Baltic states, and consistent information and cyber operations have all converged to raise fears about threats to the security and territorial integrity of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania,” wrote Dalia Bankauskaitė and her co-authors in a September 2020 article in the Strategic Forum magazine. They point out that although NATO has a significant global military advantage over Russia, Moscow has the advantage in this part of the world. There, Russia’s combat troops are more than double the size of Allied forces, including the three multinational forces in the Baltic States. Russia also has more tanks and other conventional artillery in the region than NATO. Therefore, many experts say “ a determined Russia could rapidly seize one or more of the Baltic States.” In Kaliningrad, the Russian government has also deployed missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The authors of the Strategic Forum article say that Russia’s main goal is to maintain and increase its influence in the region – a kind of “Finlandisation” which is a well-known concept in discussions on security and defence. Moscow wants to bring Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania back into Russia’s sphere of influence without resorting to a costly occupation of these countries. The Lithuanian government, on the other hand, has continued to strengthen its defenses, including through the purchase of US military helicopters and Norwegian air defense systems. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has also emphasized that the presence of multinational forces in the Baltic States and Poland sends a clear message that the Alliance is ready to defend these and other Allies in times of crisis. At the same time, NATO has considered it important to maintain open communication channels with the Russian government to discuss security challenges.

            Vaidas Saldžiūnas says that when Lithuania joined NATO, everyone breathed a sigh of relief, but the uncertainty increased, first with the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and then when Russia invaded Ukraine six years later, in 2014. “And when people here in Lithuania saw these photos and videos from the Donbass region, everyone can easily put themselves in the footsteps of the people there, picture their own towns and homes under attack. The seven-stories apartment blocks here from the Soviet era, for example, look similar to those in Ukraine,” says Vaidas.  Russia has also launched a familiar propaganda campaign to gain support for its cause. The illegal annexation of the Crimea and the war in the Donbas region has therefore been a harsh wake-up call for Lithuania.  “We got kicked in the ass,” Vaidas says.

            In the Strategic Forum article, Dalia and her co-authors agree with Vaidas’ assessment. The events in Ukraine in 2014 have completely changed the landscape of Lithuanian security. The Lithuanian armed forces have been strengthened, but it has become clear to everyone that the fight is also taking place on more unconventional “battlefields” where hybrid threats have to be confronted – including a flood of false information and cyberattacks. Effective Strategic Communications (StratCom) are also increasingly important in promoting the cause of Lithuania and NATO.

Information wars and global defenses

I am in a nondescript concrete building in the center of Vilnius with my colleagues from Rukla. We are visiting Lithuanian military “frontline” soldiers in Strategic Communications. The soldiers we meet fight on-line “information battles” from their desks  day and night. Lithuanians are no newcomers to confronting the threat posed by the deliberate distribution of hostile and false information, designed to undermine the country’s sovereignty and security.

            The Russian government used this kind of information warfare for example in the run-up to the illegal annexation of Crimea, and the same has been true in the Donbas region of Ukraine. The information war against Lithuania and its neighbors in the Baltic Sea region is based on several main narratives, such as so-called weaknesses and submissiveness of these countries to the West and the alleged aggression of NATO. According to DebunkEU.org in Lithuania, Kremlin-affiliated media are constantly pushing the false narrative that NATO is ready to use smaller member states as cannon fodder, and that NATO has plans to occupy Kaliningrad and most likely will invade Crimea. Another theme is that the portrayal of Russia as a threat is pure fiction although recent events in eastern Europe have shown quite the opposite to be the case. It was also wrongly claimed by Russia that NATO is preparing for an invasion of Belarus. No such mobilization or preparation for invasion has taken place.

            Dalia Bankauskaitė says it is important to strengthen the ability of the society to withstand the onslaught of hostile information. She says education is a key factor in fostering critical thinking. “We are dealing with negative historical narratives with origins outside Lithuania. Our opponents want to take advantage of any weaknesses in the structure of society and cause chaos by pushing and play with fear and apprehension. This is the essence of information warfare. In return, we need to tell our own story to the world,” says Dalia, adding that in fact Russia wants to ensure its security at the expense of other nations by infringing on their rights and interests. “Our response here in Lithuania is to mobilize the whole society to defend itself,” she says, referring to the concept of total defense. “When the government declares the highest level of preparedness, the state institutions work together and with society as a whole.”

The tug-of-war about history and the truth

The information war between opposing forces in international affairs is about, among other things, historical context and understanding – the debate focuses on what is true and correct. World War II is still high on the agenda in this part of the world, as it greatly influenced or decided the fate of states and their populations. The war took a heavy toll on the three Baltic nations due to massacres, forced deportations and casualties on the battlefield. Population decline as a percentage of the populace was one of the highest in all of Europe and in Lithuania, the population decreased by 15%. About 250,000 deaths in the country can be attributed to the war and the occupation by German and Soviet forces.

            Citizens of the Soviet Union, including members of the Red Army, made great sacrifices in the war. Russian authorities say 27 million Soviets were killed during the “Great Patriotic War” including 11 million soldiers.[i] But Stalin’s regime was also guilty of genocide and was allied with Adolf Hitler in the initial stages of the war, following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Western governments and experts have criticized the Russian government in recent years for constantly stepping up efforts to “rewrite” history in order to serve the interests of Moscow.  This became clear in the spring of 2020 on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. In his National Interest magazine article Russian President Vladimir Putin for example described the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as a “defensive measure” of the Soviet Union at the time, heavily criticizing the Polish government but also the Western powers for their policies in the run-up to the war. Putin also falsely claims that the Baltic states, including Lithuania, became part of the Soviet Union with the consent of the relevant governments. Finally, Putin refers to the German army’s siege of his home city of St. Petersburg, then Leningrad, which lasted for 900 days and resulted in the deaths of about one million people. Putin was born in 1952 and grew up in the shadow of the war. His brother died, during the siege at only two years of age and his father was wounded when he took part in defending the city against the German military offensive.

A joint Nazi and Soviet military parade at Brest-Litovsk on September 22 1939, after the occupation of Poland. Wikipedia photo

            Dalia Bankauskaitė says that Russia, like other nations, for sure suffered heavily during World War II. However, she profoundly disagrees with many basic elements of Putin’s view of history, as it is characterized by falsehoods and half-truths. In an article on the Atlantic Council’s website, she points out that Putin ignores the fact that the Soviet Union was in alliance with Germany during the first years of the war, and wrongly claims that Poland played a part in starting the war. This view of history is akin to an ideology aimed at strengthening Russia’s national pride. “We were the victors of the war and therefore – will not be judged. This mentality explains the way Russian politicians have acted in the international arena,” Dalia tells me over a cup of coffee in the center of Vilnius and continues: “Russia believes it can set the international rules and change them in its favour. Moscow justifies the illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the takeover of other territories by virtue of being the victors, claiming that the West owes Russia for escaping the yoke of Nazism. Lithuania should therefore be indebted to Russia because, thanks to the Red Army, Lithuania regained its capital Vilnius and other cities and provinces. This is the Russian narrative we need to be aware of  and the mindset that defines the common historical memory on their side.”

            Vaidas Saldžiūnas says that many in the West do not understand Putin’s rhetoric, but Lithuanians do. “Putin wants to be an emperor and those who are older will tell you that they have seen such characters in one form or another over the years. We need to be careful, but we are not afraid. It’s like living next door to a violent neighbour where you never really know what to expect. Putin plays on this uncertainty, both at home and internationally, also planning several moves ahead,” says Vaidas. “I have been to Russia and I did not think much of it. Government policy is about oppressing other nations, as colonial powers have done over the years, but not contributing anything to their growth.”

            Vaidas says he can hardly have normal conversations with friends in Russia anymore,

while Dalia Bankauskaitė distinguishes between the public and the government in Moscow. “Russia is like any other nation, neither better nor worse than others.” People there want to live their lives, be happy and see their dreams come true,” she says.

            “Of course, some people are fascinated by Putin and longing for a “strong leader” and unfortunately that can also be the case here in Lithuania,” says Vaidas, recalling that the country’s democratic tradition is not really that old. “We have been a democracy for 30 years and for a few years between the two world wars, but that’s really all there is to it.” Lithuanians have also been closely following developments in neighboring Belarus. “Europe’s last dictator”, President Alexander Lukashenko, has cracked down hard on the democratic opposition that has accused him of falsifying the results of the 2020 presidential elections. That fight for freedom has been waged on the streets, but the battle is no less focused on whom the public believes. Communications therefore remain paramount when opposing forces confront each other and shape the course of history. Lithuanians can easily put themselves in Belarusians’ shoes, and in fact Vilnius has given asylum to the main opposition leader, Belarusian presidential candidate Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya. The events in Belarus also mean that the Lithuanian government is even more wary of its eastern neighbour and it is clear that those two experts I spoke to, believe that Russia is capable of anything.

Traveling in time and space

The colourful and sporty Lada cars on the main square in the center of Kaunas are reminiscent of the Soviet era but are also a symbol of the new generation of Lithuanians born after the restoration of independence. The bride and groom are enjoying the spotlight, having just left the church, and the Lada cars represent a “guard of honour.” The mood is joyful and filled with anticipation which is palpable as I walk across the square. On the same walk, I visit a statue of Pope John Paul II and Kaunas Castle, originally built in the Middle Ages. Not far from the castle, Neris flows into the river Nemunas (or Neman), which originates in Belarus but then separates Lithuania and Kaliningrad in the final stretch on its way to the sea. On this small tip of a peninsula and river crossing, the geography and history of several countries are intertwined.

            My journey through time and space takes me to the capital Vilnius, which has always been a melting pot of ethnic and cultural diversity. I also visit two other historical sites that are influential and have symbolic value, although different. In Lithuania, history has a strong reference to the present and is not forgotten, although looking back may be painful.

On the Hill of Crosses with Croatians

            Like their Polish neighbours, most Lithuanians are Roman Catholic, and since the country regained independence, two popes have visited Lithuania. Pope John Paul II in 1993 and Pope Francis in 2018. During the Soviet era, however, the rulers in Moscow and their lieutenants on the ground viewed the Catholic Church as a threat – like all organizations and institutions in society that did not support communism.  This story comes to life  on the Hill of Crosses, one of Lithuania’s most visited destinations, where crosses became a symbol of resistance to the Soviet occupation and the struggle for democracy. I tagged along with Croatian soldiers from the multinational NATO force when they visited the hill on a beautiful day in June in the summer of 2020. After a two-hour journey from Rukla, the bus stopped at the roadside in the countryside, near the city of Šiauliai in northern Lithuania. The Hill of the Crosses is close by and for the final stretch to the hill we walk together in a procession with representatives of the church leading the way, bishops from both Lithuania and Croatia.

Hill of Crosses DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

            The hill suddenly appears as we draw closer, covered by 100,000 crosses of various shapes and sizes. That number is actually not entirely clear; perhaps it is more accurate to say that the crosses are simply too many to count. The Croatian soldiers are bringing with them a new wooden cross  with inscriptions, which they place during a ceremony on the hill, blessed “front and center” by the bishops. The cross is a symbolic contribution of the soldiers – in the name of the Catholic faith and also to confirm that they are ready to stand by their Lithuanian brothers and sisters in arms to defend Lithuania against invasion and other threats.

            It is not really clear how the Hill of Crosses came to be. The most enduring story is that a father who was filled with despair over his daughter’s serious illness followed the advice of a woman who appeared in his dream and told him to build a wooden cross and place it on a nearby hill. Then his daughter would recover fully. The next morning the man hurried to make the cross and put it down on the hill. When he returned, his daughter greeted him at the door and was healthy again. Legend has it that since then people have erected crosses on the hill in the hope of having their prayers answered.

            The hill was a big thorn in the side of the Soviet Union while Lithuania was occupied, and in the 1960s and 1970s, authorities repeatedly tried to level it to the ground with bulldozers. Wooden crosses were burned, and metal and stone crosses were removed. Those who were about to take crosses up to the hill were either fined or put behind the bars. These repressive measures had little or no effect on the population, – the crosses would simply be placed on the hill during the night. Now, thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the number of crosses continues to rise, as they are of course allowed to remain on the hill.

            The Hill of Crosses therefore plays an important role in the historical memory. It tells the story of resistance to political oppression and represents the role of religion in the struggle that led to restoration of independence. However, another deep-rooted and populous community of religion and culture in Lithuania was basically wiped out almost 80 years ago, in the midst of World War II. This community was an integral part of Vilnius and the next stop is therefore the capital, which was once called “Jerusalem of the North.”

Vilnius – a multinational city with a complex history

I admire the view from the apartment where I am staying in the center of Vilnius on the banks of the river Neris, which flows through the city. Opposite me, on the other bank, is the old Gediminas castle tower from the early 15th century – one of the main symbols of Vilnius. Legend has it that Grand Duke Gediminas who ruled from 1316–1341 dreamed of an iron wolf howling at the top of this hill. The Grand Duke’s  advisers interpreted the dream as a sign that a large city would be built there. He ordered the construction of the castle, but it was up to the Duke’s successor to complete the work. In the 700-year history of Vilnius, many victors have come and gone. This beautiful city, which features the main cathedral in the old town and a slew of other significant buildings, was the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the Middle Ages and has, according to public opinion, always been the only true capital.

“The foundations of the city were laid in the 14th century and the Grand Duke invited merchants from all over the world to come here. Most of them were German and that is why there is a German street in the old town, but we also have a Russian quarter and a Jewish quarter,” says Vaidas, pointing out that from the beginning Vilnius has been a multicultural city. “There is a good reason for the emergence of “Jerusalem of the North” as the city was called.  It was a place of wisdom and the Jews were very involved,” he added. Vaidas lives in Vilnius and knows the city, where about 550,000 people live today.

“Vilnius clearly has many signs of the large Jewish population that lived here, in architecture and the city-environment. Jews still live here and run schools, for example – some of the best for children in Lithuania.” Jews are therefore intertwined with our history, this can be seen all over the country and they are treated with great respect today,” says Dalia Bankauskaitė. Polish influence was also very prominent in Vilnius in the past and up to half of the population was Polish-speaking. That proportion is now about 16% and about 12% of Vilnius residents are Russian-speaking. “About 60% of the city’s population are now native Lithuanians, if that term has any meaning,” said Vaidas Saldžiūnas, noting that people from the Russian and Polish minorities also speak Lithuanian. Looking at the demographics of the entire nation, about 6.6% of Lithuanians speak Polish and about 6% speak Russian as their primary language. This proportion is therefore considerably higher in the capital than elsewhere.

Kaunas was the capital of the independent republic of Lithuania during the years between World War 1 and II, as Vilnius was then part of Poland. During World War II, Vilnius changed hands between warring parties,  and with the establishment of the first Soviet Republic of Lithuania in 1940, many from the Lithuanian elite fled to Germany When Hitler’s forces advanced eastward about a year later and occupied Vilnius, some Lithuanians believed that the German army would liberate them from the grip of communism and that the nation would regain independence – but things didn’t turn out that way. The Lithuanian independence movement led by politician Kazys Škirpa actually declared the formation of an interim government in June 1941. Some members of the movement then worked with the Nazis when they occupied the country. In fact, the Germans imprisoned Škirpa, and he ended up in a concentration camp in Germany. He was at the forefront of the independence struggle around 1920 but his historical legacy has been controversial. The same can be said of General Jonas Noreika, who was executed by the Soviets in 1947. In the eyes of many Lithuanians, he is an independence hero who fought against both Soviet and Nazi rule. Others believe that Noreika was a collaborator of the Nazis and that he was involved in the massacre of Jews in Lithuania, including when he was governor of Šiauliai. Supporters of Noreika have on the other hand pointed out that later in the war he was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. A heated debate has taken place over a plaque in Vilnius commemorating Noreika. The Lithuanian government and various scholars, however, emphasize the difference between the movement founded by Škirpa and the pro-independence movement. Vilnius officials also say that the Kremlin has falsely accused the liberation movement of various atrocities in order to smear its reputation and to back the historical view that Lithuania voluntarily surrendered to the Soviet Union.

It is estimated that about 40% of the population of Vilnius’ was Jewish at the beginning of World War II. When the Nazis occupied Lithuania in 1941, more than 200,000 Jews lived in the country, or approximately as many as in Germany. German authorities then sealed off Jews in the city and created the “Vilna Ghetto.”  Only a fraction of the 70,000 Jews living in Vilnius at that time survived the war. To learn more about that history, it was necessary to visit a now peaceful forest area near the capital.

The road to Paneriai and confronting the past

The traffic in the suburbs of Vilnius is slow, but finally I get on the highway and make a turn when I see the sign pointing to my destination. I am a bit confused when I enter something resembling an industrial area. However I am guided by the road signs – I turn left, continue driving for a short while and finally I am at my destination. I have arrived in Paneriai or Ponary as the place has also been called. There, on a wooded hill and in nearby ditches and pits, about 100,000 people met their fate about 80 years ago, from July 1941 to August 1944. The people were murdered in cold blood – men, women and children. The majority were Lithuanian Jews, or over 70,000, but thousands of Poles and Russian prisoners of war, as well as Lithuanians and Roma, were also murdered. The people were rounded up into groups and forced into the pits. The executioners stood on the edges of the pits and fired to kill. Nazi execution squads were in the leading role and mainly responsible for the massacre, but were also assisted by Lithuanian collaborators.

Ceremony in Paneriai in 2011
At the Paneriai DELFI / Audrius Solominas

            The Red Army originally dug the pits in 1940 and planned to place fuel tanks and related equipment there, but the work had not been finished when the Germans occupied Lithuania. Each pit was 12 to 23 m wide and more than 5 m deep. There was a railway station in Paneriai, and those responsible for the atrocities transported some of the people there by train. Trucks were also used, or the victims were forced to walk around 10 km. from Vilnius. The bodies of up to 70,000 people, the majority of the victims, were then burned in bonfires in the forest.

            I take a look at the low stone wall that forms a circle around each pit and I have a hard time imagining that in some of them up to 25 thousand people were murdered.  Very few survived but among them was 19-year-old Ita Straż from Vilnius. A Lithuanian policeman dragged her to the edge of a pit that was already full of corpses, and Ita thought these were her last moments. The executioners, however, missed their mark but Ita was so terrified that she fell into the pit and soon she was buried under a corpse. One of the murderers then fired into the pile to make sure no one survived and one of the shots hit Ita’s hand. However, she did not utter a single sound and finally managed to crawl away later. “I was barefoot. I walked and walked over corpses. There seemed to be no end to it,” ” said Ita Straż.[ii]

            Before the war, the residents of Vilnius used the forest for outdoor activities and picked berries and mushrooms there. Now the Paneriai area is like a public park, full of monuments. Literally at every footstep there is a story to be told, – and it is terrifying and difficult to think of all these horrific scenes but at the same time they feel so distant in the tranquility and mild weather on this beautiful summer day. Some of the monuments date from the Soviet era, but many have been erected since Lithuania regained independence. Some of them have changed over time, including the one in the parking lot at the entrance to the area. At first, the inscription stated in Russian and Lithuanian that in Paneriai, 100,000 Soviet citizens had been shot dead.  However, due to efforts by the Lithuanian Jewish community, a granite plaque was added in 1989 stating in Hebrew, Yiddish, Lithuanian, and Russian, that 70,000 Jews — men, women, and children — were among the victims. In 2004, the word Soviet citizens was finally erased and simply replaced with about 100,000 people. Some of the monuments have been funded by individuals, including Rachel Margolis. She survived being in the ghetto in Vilnius, where she was in the resistance movement and then worked for a long time at the Jewish Museum in the city.

            In his book Bloodlands, American historian Timothy Snyder demonstrates how 14 million people were murdered or died in man-made famines in the Baltic States, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and western Russia over a period of twelve years – since the early 1930s (1933) and until the end of World War II (1945). Hitler and Stalin and their forces were responsible for the massacre, along with collaborators in these countries. “This is a history of political mass murder,” Snyder says. “The 14 million were all victims of a Soviet or Nazi killing policy, often of an interaction between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, but never casualties of the war between them,” as he puts it.[iii] The victims were mainly executed by bullets and in gas chambers or starved to death, for example in Ukraine where the Stalin regime prevented the population from obtaining food. The bloodlands of Paneriai are therefore part of a larger and more complex picture.

            At the end of the war, about 95% of the Jews in Lithuania, or nearly 200,000 people had been massacred by the Nazis and their collaborators. Some were deported to Nazi concentration camps. The Nazis took full advantage of those Lithuanians who were willing to help them and for some reason believed the preposterous lie that Jews were in some way responsible for the Soviet occupation of the country. When the Nazis ran the Red Army out of the country in 1941, some Lithuanians also saw the German army as the key to liberating the nation from communist rule, as mentioned earlier

            “These events are part of our history and we need to face them. Asking for forgiveness says little in itself,” says Dalia Bankauskaitė.– choosing every word carefully as we sit in the café in the center of Vilnius, the city so intertwined with Lithuanian Jewish history. “Neither society nor we as Lithuanians try to shy away from responsibility or deny what happened. This is a shameful chapter in our history, these events should have never happened and will never ever happen again. That’s for sure.”

            The history of Jews in Lithuania and the nation is crystallized in the life of Irena Veisaitė, who died in 2020 at the age of 92 from COVID-19. Irena was born in Kaunas in 1928 and was a well-known theater and literary scholar and a human rights activist. Her mother died in the Kaunas Jewish ghetto during World War II. Irena studied in the Soviet Union after the war, graduating with a doctorate in literature from the University of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1963 and wrote her doctoral dissertation on the poetry of the German poet Heinrich Heine. She was a university professor for almost half a century, from 1953 to 1997, and was awarded the Goethe Prize in 2012 for her contribution to cultural relations between Germany and Lithuania. Lithuanian National Radio and Television (LRT) honored the memory of Irena by publishing excerpts from a book by the author Aurimas Švedas based on interviews with her, “Life Should Be Transparent.” In the interviews, Irena emphasized her origins and background as a Jew but at the same time said she was Lithuanian. “When the Soviets arrived in 1940, we were forced to live in an apartment we shared with Jews who had fled Poland. When the Nazis arrived a year later, we were forced to go to the ghetto in Kaunas,” said Irena, adding that her relationship with her hometown was special. “I have Kaunas in my blood. I have lived in Vilnius since 1943, but I still consider myself to be from Kaunas. “

Holocaust. Vida Press

            Irena Veisaitė was a contemporary of Danutė Karankevičienė, who was deported to the Soviet Union at the end of World War II and spent more than 15 years in exile far from her homeland. The lives of these two women illustrate Lithuania’s complex and, more often than not, painful history. At the same time, their life-stories bear witness to the courage and perseverance of a nation that repeatedly had to endure invasions and occupation by big powers from the East and the West, but finally regained the freedom that had been so elusive and required such great sacrifices. 

            Lithuanians have faced the fact that the Nazis had local collaborators who took part in atrocities such as the massacres in Paneriai. When the then President of Lithuania, Algirdas Brazauskas, addressed the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, in 1995, he asked for forgiveness but the Israeli government has also honored Lithuanians who, during the war, saved the lives of their Jewish neighbours. Some have argued that Lithuania lacked the political will to hold those guilty of these crimes accountable, but a final judgement on that will not be passed here. Following the end of World War II, 250 people were sentenced to death in Lithuania for participating in war-time massacres and since the country regained its independence, attention has continued to focus on Lithuania’s involvement and responsibility for what happened. In 1991, for example, a court in Vilnius convicted a former security guard, 93-year-old Kazys Gimžauskas, of war crimes. Gimžauskas, however, didn’t have to serve prison time because of his Alzheimer’s disease. When Pope Francis visited Lithuania in 2018, he paid special tribute to the memory of Lithuanian Jews killed during World War II. The Pope held an open-air mass in the presence of about 100,000 people, in Kaunas. He also remembered those who suffered oppression and forced deportation when Lithuania was occupied and a part of the Soviet Union.

            The Lithuanian government highlights the Jewish heritage and the year of 2020 was specially dedicated to their 700-year long history in the country. On April 23 of that year, Gitanas Nausėda, the current president, made a phone call to the president of Israel to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the birth of Elijah ben Solomon Zalman or Vilna Gaon, a rabbi and scholar who lived in Vilnius and played a part in the city being termed the “Jerusalem of the North.” “The teaching of the Vilna Gaon that was based on perseverance, patience and dedication to spread spiritual strength and seek wisdom still inspires in the most difficult moments, ” said President Nausėda. The history of the Jews in Lithuania is not forgotten and remains alive, even though their community now numbers only about 3,000 people.

A proud nation in a country with a future

On a September night in 2020 the players of the home team in the Šiauliai sports hall walk out onto the court facing BC Pieno žvaigždės in the Lithuanian Basketball League.  Before tip-off the national anthem is played on the loudspeaker system and the players look towards the national flag way up in the rafters. Basketball is much more than just a sport in Lithuania – it is a passion and a part of the nation’s identity.

            “This is the national sport. The passion is absolutely unbelievable, I have never experienced anything like this, and everyone here has an opinion on basketball,” says Icelander Elvar Már Friðriksson, who plays for BC Šiauliai. It is a close game and ends with a narrow victory for the visitors, 81:80. Elvar is from the basketball town of Njarðvík and there, as in Lithuania, players and coaches who excel are placed on a pedestal. “Our coach, Antanas Sireika, is an old legend here in Lithuania and won the European Championship title with the national team as a coach. He is from Šiauliai and is almost like a god to the people,” says Elvar. Freedom heroes from the resistance movement and women who survived the Holocaust or 15 years in exile in Russia are also important for the identity of Lithuanians – to fight the overwhelming force, show resilience and finally win against all odds. A small nation that wants to prove itself to the outside world. “Lithuanians want to be first and foremost. It is the core of our national character – to be in the leadership role,” says Vaidas Saldžiūnas.

            When I’m on my way to meet Vaidas on an October night, the second round of the 2020 parliamentary elections is only few days away. I walk past an election poster with a picture of a female politician. In fact, women strengthened their position in the Seimas, the Lithuanian parliament, even though they still are only 27% of MPs. The new Prime Minister of Lithuania is Ingrida Šimonytė, a 46-year-old economist and experienced Conservative politician who leads a center-right coalition government on behalf of the Homeland Union Lithuanian Christian Democrats.  The government also includes the Freedom Party led by Aušrinė Armonaitė and the Liberal Movement led by the third woman, Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen – the one on the election poster.  The honeymoon for the government was short-lived, as the corona virus (COVID-19) had spread in Lithuania just like other countries, and unemployment was around 16% at the beginning of 2021.  Reforms in health and education are also important policy areas.  European Union membership in 2004 opened new paths and opportunities for the economy and Lithuanians gained access to the common labour market of the European Economic Area. Many people chose to try their luck abroad, for example in Iceland, and in addition, the birth rate has not kept up with the death rate. Since Lithuania’s independence in 1991, the population has dropped by nearly one million, to 2.8 million today. However, this trend may be reversing, as in 2019 the population increased slightly for the first time since independence. The main explanation is that more people moved to the country than abroad. Vaidas Saldžiūnas says that despite everything, there seems to be a certain turnaround in recent years and more optimism. “In many ways we have never had it so good, never been so free and the possibilities have never been greater, even though some people do not appreciate it as they should. “

            “First of all, we are an extremely proud nation” says Dalia Bankauskaitė. We are starting to feel a little bit cold, as we have been sitting outside for over an hour in the autumn air. “The national anthem is not just played before basketball games. We are really proud of our colours, however nationalism can be portrayed in a negative light and hostile information operators have tried to use it against us. I would rather talk about patriotism because we are no longer shy or ashamed of being Lithuanians,” she says, adding that it was a challenge to re-establish Lithuania as a full-fledged and independent state on the global stage after restoring independence. 

            “The outside world did not know who we were. We knew, however where our place was in the world, we knew the West, but the people there knew nothing about us. It was as if we were in a gray zone, having to re-introduce ourselves and explain that Lithuania was not on the moon. Or as if the land was invisible and one had to simply apologize for coming from a small country in the north. But that is no longer the case,” says Dalia. “We are recognized, we have a strong national identity, and we can be proud of many things,” she continues. “We were inexperienced but still joined both NATO  and the European Union, where we have stood our ground and shown responsibility. There is no place for political parties that are pro-Russian here, I would say. Nobody is looking to the east. We have also had the policy of being a welfare state. In the beginning, we had no experience of a free market economy, but we have built our companies from the ground up and our people have made a name for themselves internationally. We have the courage to recognize that we have made mistakes, but we have learned from them and strive to do better. I think we are in a good position as a state and a society.” Vaidas Saldžiūnas agrees with Dalia as we near the end of our dinner chat. “Yes, I think Lithuanians have in many ways been more successful than some other nations. And of course we are proud,” he says and smiles as we say goodbye to each other outside the restaurant on the banks of the Neris.

            Just over a month after I sat down and spoke with Dalia and Vaidas in Vilnius I pack my bags. On Friday, 27 November 2020, I say goodbye to my colleagues and friends at the military base in Rukla and head north through the Lithuanian countryside on my way to Riga, the capital of Latvia, where I board a plane to Iceland. I fondly recall the time I spent in Lithuania working for the Icelandic Crisis Response Unit as a part of a multinational NATO force. The feeling is bittersweet. I gained valuable life experience and feel that I have made a significant contribution to tackling important challenges, such as ensuring peace and security in the region. I will return to Lithuania – although it will probably not be like “a rock star in a private jet.” When I land in Keflavík Iceland, I have to take my bags off the conveyor belt at Leifsstöð – the international airport terminal  – there is no German Benny to do that. I do the first COVID test of two required and then hop in my rental car, again on the way to quarantine, this time in the country side of Grímsnes in southern Iceland.

Epilogue on the 2022 full-scale Russia invasion into Ukraine, bravery, Western support, lessons learned and what lies ahead

“Well, invasion has begun,” was the message from a good friend in America when I woke up early in the morning of 24 February 2022, in a hotel room in Vilnius. I jumped out of bed and turned on the TV-news. Despite weeks and months of detailed intelligence and multiple news reports about an imminent full-scale invasion by Russia into Ukraine, it was still hard to believe that Vladimir Putin had really gone through with escalating the eight year old conflict in the country up to an all-out war. His aim was to occupy a sovereign state next door to Russia, put his puppets  into power and turn Ukraine into a Moscow satellite state.  I was in Vilnius for a conference on countering disinformation and those attending had gathered the night before for an informal icebreaker. On the 24th of February the conference itself was to start and three of the attendants were from Ukraine. When I met them at breakfast and during the first session of the conference, they were at the same time angry and worried but mostly determined to fight back and contribute to the defence of their country against the invaders. One of those three was a reservist in the Ukrainian army and immediately started to make plans to travel back home as soon as possible. Their thoughts were of course with their families and friends in Ukraine and that was also the case with a good Dutch friend, attending the conference. He is married to an Ukrainian woman and was constantly on the phone with his wife, whose parents lived in the Kherson in south of Ukraine. A city that soon would be occupied by Russian forces. My friend and his wife had pleaded with her parents to leave Kherson and  move to Kyiv or the Netherlands to safety, but the old couple stayed put in their home, not venturing to go on the road and join the thousands of Ukrainians forced to flee the fighting. Within few days they would be living in an occupied territory, in a war-zone.

In short, feelings were raw and that was also the case when I joined thousands of Lithuanians, Ukrainians and people of multiple other nationalities marching on the Russian Embassy in Vilnius in the evening of 24 February. All of us were protesting the barbaric, illegal full-scale invasion of Ukraine which since has led to so much suffering and destruction, with no end in sight. The day before I had actually again interviewed Dalia Bankauskaitė, my dear Lithuanian friend and expert on security and defence, right in the heart of the capital, asking her about the prospects of a full-scale invasion and the overall security situation in this part of the world. How little did we know during our talk which as ever was enlightening. “The situation is very serious but it hasn’t developed overnight,” Dalia said and when I asked her what the President of Russia wanted she answered: “Putin is denying the presence of democratic values, structures and institutions. Ukrainians have decided long ago they wanted to have a democratic country.” Dalia added that the West should not allow Putin to “hijack the conversation” and we needed to tell our own story, our own narrative on the importance of freedom” This was true on the 23rd of February 2022 and of course still is.

The fighting spirit of Ukraine against the invaders

I have returned twice to Vilnius since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. First in mid-June 2022, celebrating Iceland’s national holiday of 17th June, of course in Iceland street. I met Dalia again to discuss the war and everything under the sun as we usually do. Vilnius was buzzing with life this beautiful summer night and I couldn’t help wondering, that this should also be the case in Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine. Sadly, people there were experiencing the horrors of war as the invaders, hell-bent on destroying and killing, are committing atrocities that continue to this day. Those responsible for war crimes have to be held to account and in mid-September 2022 I interviewed Nataliya Gumenyuk a well-known journalist from Ukraine, who has made it her mission to collect evidence on the atrocities committed by the military forces invading her country. “The crime of aggression is a crime against peace when one country has invaded another one,” she told me on my Podcast, World Focus from Brussels. Ukraine has been pushing for a special tribunal to be set up in order to investigate the crime of aggression against Ukraine, showing Vladimir Putin and his generals they will held to account.  This initiative has been gaining support and on 2 February 2023 Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EU Commission, announced the launch of a new International Center for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression in Ukraine, during a joint news conference with the President of Ukraine, in Kyiv. The center will be embedded in a joint investigative team created last year by Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, and supported by EUROJUST, in the Hague. Advocates for such a tribunal say it is needed because the International Criminal Court doesn’t have the power to examine the crime or act of aggression, defined by The United Nations as the “invasion or attack by the armed forces of a state on the territory of another state, or any military occupation.

Experts, me included, had predicted that the Ukrainian military wouldn’t stand a chance against the “mighty” Russian army, but thankfully I was mistaken. By now it is abundantly clear that Vladimir Putin both vastly overestimated his own military and underestimated the resolve and fighting spirit of Ukrainians, led heroically by president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Putin was also totally wrong in thinking that the West would end up squabbling and bickering and not be able to unite behind Ukraine.  Granted, it took considerable time for Germany to agree and allow  Leopard-2 main battle tanks to be sent to Ukraine but they are on their way and so are Challenger tanks from the UK and later Abrams tanks from the US. And yes, Turkiye is delaying (especially) Sweden’s and Finland’s membership of NATO and wants to play the role of a peace-broker but it is also a key NATO Ally. Furthermore, Victor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, a NATO and EU country, is an increasingly authoritarian leader and has through the years praised Vladimir Putin. Nevertheless, unity has prevailed. The European Union has done its share in this wide-ranging support for Ukraine, including hard-hitting sanctions against Russia and as Jens Stoltenberg Secretary General of NATO put it: “President  Putin wanted less NATO but now he is getting more NATO.”

Lithuanians protest in the front of the Russian Embassy in Vilnius on February 24. Photo @ Sveinn Helgason

Sweden and Finland will eventually join NATO making the Baltic Sea a “NATO lake.” The Baltic States, where I have returned to work for Iceland on a another military base, are also under no illusion that they need to strengthen their defences even further. The new NATO Strategic Concept adopted at the Madrid NATO Summit in June 2022 stated that  “The Russian Federation is the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.” In the Summit declaration, NATO Allies  committed to deploy additional robust in-place combat-ready forces on the eastern flank of the Alliance, to be scaled up from the existing battlegroups to brigade-size units where and when required, underpinned by credible rapidly available reinforcements, prepositioned equipment, and enhanced command and control. This is a vast and complicated task already under way but requires strong political will and unity and of course significant military resources. NATO leaders will take stock of the progress in their next Summit in Vilnius 11-12 July this year., Make no mistake, the hosts along with the other Baltic States, Poland and several other Allies will keep up the pressure to implement all the decisions taken in Madrid and Vilnius as quickly as possible making sure that “every inch of NATO territory will be defended” should Putin dare to cross that line. Collective defence and projecting credible deterrence towards any potential enemy is the core of NATO and nowhere is this more evident than on the Eastern flank of the Alliance. The implementation of the “Deter and Defend” (DDA) planning and readiness strategy by NATO is also crucial as General Guglielmo Luigi Miglietta, Commander of the Allied Joint Forces Command Brunssum pointed out in his recent article – “Deter and Defend: Readiness is the path to peace.”  The Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Christopher G Cavoli has also made clear the importance of DDA. “It unites NATO in common collective defence, preserves our security, and defends all Allies,”  Gen. Cavoli said.

The NATO multinational enhanced Forward Presence battlegroups, deployed in the Baltic States and Poland since 2017, have been a success story. I know that first hand and it was encouraging to attend the 5th anniversary of my “old eFP battlegroup” in Rukla, on 9 February 2022, just two weeks before Russian tanks rolled across the border from Belarus heading to Kyiv in addition to attacks from other directions. The unity of NATO was demonstrated by the anniversary ceremony in Rukla and in other eFP battlegroups,  but after 24 February  last year it is clear that tripwire forces are not sufficient. And eventually Ukraine will be a NATO Ally, elevated from the current partner status which does involve significant cooperation and support by the Alliance but not Article 5 protection. Achieving the goal of NATO membership will take time but is the only viable end-state for Ukraine to secure its sovereignty for the long-term. Afterall NATO is the strongest military alliance in the world.  Support for NATO membership remains very high in Lithuania and in Iceland it had increased by 20 percentage points in June 2022, from the year before. Around 70% of respondents in a poll commissioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs say they are positive towards Iceland’s membership of the Alliance.

Returned to safety from the war zone

The second time I returned to Vilnius after the full-scale invasion by Russia into Ukraine, was just before  Christmas 2022. It felt like going home when I went to another basketball game in Lithuania, watching again Elvar Már Friðriksson, the Icelandic basketball player whom I had met in Šiauliai in the fall of 2020. Now he was playing for Rytas Vilnius against his old teammates. After a hard-fought game Rytas won in overtime, with Elvar playing brilliantly. The war in Ukraine is no basketball game, but using sport analogies, it may not even be half-time yet in this war and the second half will no doubt be-difficult. Ukraine might need overtime to defeat Russia but as polls show, Ukrainians are totally united behind the national armed forces and political leaders. This is a nation fighting for its survival, for values of democracy and freedom against a tyrannical regime. “This is an existential war about values,” says Nataliya Gumenyuk, capturing why it is so important to win the war. NATO and individual Allies, most importantly the US, have massively supported Kyiv with weapons and other various lethal and humanitarian assistance, trained Ukrainian soldiers and provided precious intelligence. Lithuania has provided substantial military aid to Ukraine and has constantly pressed Allies to do more, plus of course delivering other kind of support. I am proud of what Iceland has contributed, for example in providing transportation to deliver weapons and other crucial equipment to Ukraine’s Armed Forces, plus financial and humanitarian aid. That includes donating nine tons of hand-knitted wool socks and other warm clothing, transported by our Canadian Allies to keep soldiers and the Ukrainian general public  warm in the freezing winter. Ukraine will need increased and sustained support on all fronts as long as it takes to achieve victory.  The Ukrainian military has shown bravery and war-fighting skills, using to the fullest state-of-the art modern weapons provided by the West. One result is the liberation of Kherson in November last year. The mother and father-in-law of my Dutch friend have now been reunited with family members elsewhere, in a safer place. However, many are grieving their loved ones, scores of people are still missing, perhaps forcibly deported or abducted by the invaders and their collaborators. 

Dalia and Vaidas Saldžiūnas, the Lithuanian security and defence experts I interviewed in the fall of 2020, agreed that “Russia is capable of anything.” Many of us were shocked and even surprised on the 24 February 2022 although we shouldn’t have been. The writing was on the wall and had been there for a long time. In the spring of 2021, I interviewed on my Podcast Liubov Tsybulska, a security and communications expert, one of the Ukrainians who were at the conference in Vilnius when the full-scale invasion started. The subject of the interview in mid-April 2021 was the massive military build-up of Russia on the border with Ukraine which in hindsight shows, among many other indications, how Kremlin was already on-track to re-invade its neighbour. “Russia always sends the same message, we are going to attack if we want,” Tsybulska told me at the time and warned against appeasing Russia, as that would only result in more aggression. “For us in Ukraine there is only one option, to get stronger and fight.” And on the possibility of a full-scale invasion Tsybulska answered at the time: “It is possible but Russia is not full ready for this. The Kremlin is trying to put pressure on the West and Ukraine. “

United we stand with Ukraine

Over the next months, during the rest of 2021 and right up to 24 February 2022, Western leaders called Kremlin or travelled to Moscow, trying to persuade Putin to back-off, sitting at his ridiculously long table but to no avail. He had made up his mind and those now saying that the West should seek diplomatic solutions to the war have apparently forgotten this scenario. Putin was in no mood for diplomacy – he wanted to crush Ukraine which he didn’t even consider a real state.

Hopefully we are learning our lessons, however painful they may be. First comes victory and the only way to deal with Putin is with total political solidarity and overwhelming military strength. Nevertheless I am not naïve and the definition of victory can be different to different people. Diplomacy and politics will have a crucial role in ending the war but hard military power is necessary to negotiate from a strong position where Ukrainians and their leaders have the final word. We in the West are feeling the pinch of higher energy prices and inflation but the pain and suffering is of course most deeply felt by the Ukrainian nation which eventually will drive the invaders out and rebuild a prosperous democracy, a member state of NATO and the EU. That will be challenging and take time but we #standwithUkraine.

[i] It should also be noted that Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, contributed 7 million soldiers to the Red Army and around 2.5 million were killed on the front. Ukraine was also a large contributor to the industrial resources of the USSR.

[ii] Snyder, Timothy, Bloodlands Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, p. 193, Vintage 2015.

[iii] Snyder, p. X.  

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